Researcher: Tax credit scholarships lead to academic gains in Florida public schools


A scholarship program for low-income students has spurred Florida public schools to improve their scores on standardized tests, a respected independent researcher says in a new report.

The report, written by Northwestern University economics and social policy professor David Figlio,  finds that the creation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2001 led immediately to academic improvements in the public schools that were the most likely to lose students to the learning alternative. The gains were the largest in the public schools with the greatest number of nearby private schools and those with the greatest incentives to keep federal money they received based on the number of lower-income students.

“Our results indicate that the increased competitive pressure faced by public schools associated with the introduction of Florida’s FTC Scholarship Program led to general improvements in public school performance,” Figlio wrote.

The Florida scholarship law provided a unique research opportunity. That’s because Figlio was able to study the effects across a populated state and to compare test scores at three important intervals: 1) before the law was passed; 2) the year between the time the law passed and it took effect; and 3) for four years after the program started. He was also able to measure differences between public schools based on their proximity to private school competitors, the number of low-income students in their student body, and the potential for increased federal funding related to low-income students. In all cases, the finding was consistent: Public schools improved their performance in direct proportion to the level of competition they faced.

“Our main focus is to provide learning options to low-income families who could not otherwise afford them, but it thrills us to see traditional public schools improving as well,” said John Kirtley, chairman of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which administers the scholarship. “It just underscores the fact that this scholarship program helps strengthen public education overall.”

The report is the latest in a series of studies that show how the program helps low-income students who choose the alternative and the public schools they leave. A December 2008 report by a state government accountability agency determined that the scholarship saves taxpayers $1.49 for every $1 lost in tax credits, money that can be used to enhance public schools. A June 2009 report commissioned by the state Department of Education found that students who choose the scholarship are the poorest and lowest-performing students in the public schools they leave behind; these students achieved the same academic gains as test-takers of all income levels nationally.